Corker: No More U.S. Arms Sales to Gulf Until Qatar Crisis Solved

Sen. Bob Corker has no qualms playing bad cop as Tillerson works to salvage Gulf relations from a bitter Qatar feud.

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Fed up with the Gulf states’ ongoing Qatar dispute, the Senate threw its hat in the diplomatic ring with an ultimatum of its own.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, announced Monday he will withhold consent on future arms sales to Gulf states until there is “a path for resolving the ongoing dispute.”

“Before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC,” Sen. Corker said in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released Monday.

Under current rules, the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee must preliminarily approve any major U.S. arms sales. From there, Congress has 30 days to review and either approve or block proposed arms sales.

The move sends yet another signal to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to bury the hatchet with Qatar before their row disrupts the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the region. A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy it’s unusual for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to flex its muscles like this in a diplomatic dispute.

“It is a pretty significant tool of leverage,” the official told FP.

It could at least temporarily jeopardize future sales to Saudi Arabia, which recently agreed to a bundle of arms deals with the United States to the tune of $110 billion.

Corker’s move is clearly meant to provide some leverage to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he tries to defuse the feud. Tillerson and Corker enjoy a close personal relationship and coordinate closely on top foreign policy issues.

Tillerson has voiced exasperation after three weeks of efforts to broker a deal between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its regional allies — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt — who imposed a blockade on Doha beginning June 5. (Saudi Arabia even deported 15,000 Qatari camels from its border).

The Trump administration, however, has sent out disjointed messages about its stance on the dispute, hampering attempts to settle the quarrel. Shortly after the dispute erupted, President Donald Trump took credit for the Gulf states’ condemnation of Qatar in a tweet. Some experts and congressional aides said Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, in which he announced a huge arms sale and signaled Washington would side with Riyadh and other Sunni Arab states against Shiite-ruled Iran, helped pave the way for the Gulf states to overreach with Qatar.  

“I don’t think we would be in the situation we are in, if [Gulf governments] didn’t feel, after the president’s trip to Riyadh, that they had the mandate to do what they did,” said a senior Senate staffer.

Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the longer the dispute drags on, the greater the risk of disruption to U.S. military operations and to relations with Washington’s Arab allies in the Persian Gulf.

The United States, which oversees a vital air command center in Qatar and has strategic naval and air bases in the region, will need to find a way to settle the feud without causing any government to lose face. “There has to be an honorable climbdown for all sides,” Wehrey said.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have suffered some damaging public relations setbacks over the past month. The Senate on June 13 only narrowly voted against a resolution expressing disapproval of an arms sale to supply bombs for Riyadh’s controversial air war in Yemen. And the Associated Press reported last week that the United Arab Emirates was involved in the brutal torture of captured fighters in Yemen. The UAE denied the report, which was based on accounts from civil rights lawyers, former detainees, and Yemeni military officials.

The verbal attacks and strident demands on Qatar led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also raised broader questions about the reliability of the Gulf allies for the United States, some experts said, while the State Department grows increasingly frustrated with Saudi-led intransigence on the issue.

On June 22, the four countries released a list of 13 demands for Qatar to meet in 10 days before facing unspecified consequences. The demands included shutting down Qatari-funded news site Al Jazeera; severing diplomatic ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch geopolitical rival; cutting ties with the Muslim Brotherhood; ending Turkey’s military footprint in Qatar; ending funding of U.S.-designated terrorist groups; and handing over individuals in Qatar who are wanted by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on terrorism charges.

Tillerson said in a statement Saturday “some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet” but called on all parties to “sit together and continue this conversation.”

Another senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, didn’t mince words. Some of the demands are “complete non-starters,” the official told FP, including shuttering Al Jazeera.

Days prior to the list of demands being made public, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Foggy bottom was “mystified” why the Gulf states hadn’t released a list of demands to Qatar to ease the blockade and questioned Riyadh and its allies’ motives behind the boycott.

“At this point, we are left with one simple question:  Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?” Nauert said at a press briefing on June 20.

U.S. government officials and lawmakers have long expressed concern over Qatar’s dealings with Iran, its support for Hamas and its failure to cut off financing to Islamist militants in Syria and elsewhere. But diplomats and members of Congress have concluded that Qatar is moving in a positive direction. With congressional backing, the Obama administration in 2016 approved the sale of dozens of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar. For their part, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have also faced allegations that they have turned a blind eye to some donors with links to Islamist groups, and the Emirates have been accused of tolerating companies with ties to Iran.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia last month, President Trump signed what the White House touted as a massive $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia (though it merely amounted to a bundle of letters of intent for future deals). The move underscored the president’s close personal rapport with Saudi leadership and a fresh start to U.S.-Gulf relations, deeply strained under former President Barack Obama — due in large part to the Iran nuclear deal.

While visiting Saudi Arabia, Trump also convened a summit of regional leaders, including member states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, to address terrorist threats in the Middle East. But the dispute has marred any progress hashed out at the summit, according to Corker.

“Unfortunately, the GCC did not take advantage of the summit and instead chose to devolve into conflict,” Corker wrote.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), said Monday the quarrel could undermine the campaign against Islamic State and efforts to counter Iran.

“I share Senator Corker’s concern that the current GCC dispute distracts from our shared, most pressing security challenges – defeating ISIS and pushing back on Iran,” Cardin said in a statement.

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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